The Power of Apology

By Egan, Timothy | International New York Times, June 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Power of Apology


Egan, Timothy, International New York Times


It doesn't diminish countries or religions to note past injustices or crimes against humanity. It elevates them.

A week of absurdity around a confused racial con artist, and a massacre in a black church brings us to this: Friday was the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, when the last of the American slaves were told they were free. Now, to put it to good use, at a time when a post-racial era seems very much out of reach.

The first black man to live in the White House, long hesitant about doing anything bold on the color divide, could make one of the most simple and dramatic moves of his presidency: apologize for the land of the free being, at one time, the largest slaveholding nation on earth.

The Confederate flag that still flies on the grounds of the Statehouse in South Carolina, cradle of the Civil War, is a reminder that the hatred behind the proclaimed right to own another human being has never left our shores.

An apology would not kill that hatred, but it would ripple, positively, in ways that may be felt for years.

As the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother who died more than a century after slavery ended, Barack Obama has little ancestral baggage on this issue. Yet no man could make a stronger statement about America's original sin than the first African- American president.

Conservatives would caw -- they always do -- and say, get over it, don't play the race card. Liberals would complain that a simple apology did not go far enough, unless it entailed reparations for the descendants of slaves. But words of contrition -- a formal acknowledgment of a grievous wrong by a great nation -- have a power all their own.

The British, the Vatican, the Germans and the South Africans have all issued formal apologies for their official cruelties, and each case has had a cleansing, even liberating effect. The United States Congress apologized to African-Americans for slavery in 2009, though it came with a caveat that the mea culpa could not be used as legal rationale for reparations.

And President Bill Clinton, while in Africa in 1998, apologized for the slave trade, but not for a government that institutionalized white supremacy during its first four score and change.

For this year's Juneteenth -- commemorating the day in 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when a Union general landed in Galveston, Tex., and told the last of the dead- enders in Texas that "all slaves are free" -- President Obama could close a loop in a terrible history. He could also elevate the current discussion on race, which swirled earlier this week around the serial liar Rachel Dolezal, and the race-baiting billionaire vanity blimp of Donald Trump. …

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